Monday, May 08, 2006

Death at a Distance

Since I have moved to Scotland I have attended more funerals than in my entire life previously. Although few people can say they enjoy funerals, I struggle even more than most to keep my equilibrium and to find through the funeral some sense of peace. A friend in his blog used the phrase, a "detente with death" (www.gabrielharley.blogspot.com). I like the phrase because it conveys the sense of a temporary, tentative resolution. A detente may fall apart and conflict may resume, or it may grow into a lasting peace. And so through these funerals I had come to a tenuous understanding with death.

The news of my former father in law's death disturbed that fragile peace and made me appreciate the value of funerals. I had not spoken to my father in law since my marriage fell apart. We had no reason to. I think from time to time he may have thought of me and might actually in some vague way have missed me. I like to think so because from time to time I thought of him and was saddened to learn that now with his death there would be no possibility of talking to him again or remembering the stories of his life.

If I were at his funeral or gathered afterward for coffee at his home, I could say to someone, "Did he get his purple heart for that wound in his leg on the ship?"
And someone would say, " I didn't know he had a purple heart."
Another would add, "Yes, as a matter of fact, I think he had two."
"Two? Oh, well then one could have been for that first wound on the ship. Was that before America was even in the war, officially, I mean."
"Yes, he lied about his age and ran off to join the conflict with some expeditionary force."
And so the funeral would allow us to talk his life back into the room. I was not there. I hope someone remembered the story of the ship. I would have liked to have heard others.

Harold Wesley Kasserman was a fighting man. He liked to tell the story of running away to war and was very proud of becoming a full colonel in the regular army. But he was not a fighting man in the sense that he was a warrior or clamored for conflict. His fight began with reading books. In Hannibal, Ohio, a tiny town on the river, reading books was unusual. I don't think I ever knew how he happened to read books, but I remember the pain and determination when he told me about reading words without ever having heard them. As a result, he thought Napoleon was pronounced "Napple Open." He did not tell me how that mistake was made known to him but even as a young woman I could read the pain in the telling of the story and knew that the world could be very cruel to boys from small, tough towns who read books.

Life on the river was rough he said simply. With a shake of his head, he picked up some other conversational thread. "I was a captain in the Army before I could speak properly," he told me. I never knew quite how to react. It was not clear if he wanted sympathy or praise or daring me to say that he was not speaking properly. And that internal fight kept most of the people in his life at a distance.

When I first came to know him, he was a lieutenant colonel in the army and he was in Viet Nam for his second tour of duty. Like many of my generation, I was opposed to the war, but I could not help but sympathize with his son's anxieties over his father's well being and his own conflict in having to keep it a secret that his father was serving in this unpopular war. Perhaps this ability for my own ambivalence made a bridge over which he and I sometimes talked. He had stories to tell and at least one book he wanted to write. I hope he did.

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